Okay, here's the final entry in this year's 31 Days of Horror.
It's for the second movie I watched this month, so it seems kind of silly to be doing it on Halloween, but it truly deserves a post all its own. It's a weird French masterpiece, and I can't sing its praises highly enough.
I'd heard of this movie before, of course, and I'd heard the Billy Idol song. I'd seen the poster and even some screenshots of the creepy main character with her creepy, creepy mask. But I'd never watched it, although I'd heard how good it was. So I was taken by surprise by its elegance, pacing and atmosphere.
The plot starts with a woman, played by Alida Valli-- featured in my favorite movie of all time, The Third Man, and another that's in my top ten of all time, Suspiria-- driving down a road late at night, dragging the body of a young girl out of the back of her car, and throwing the corpse into the Seine. Then we are introduced to a doctor giving a lecture about grafting living tissue from one subject to another. After the lecture, he is summoned to the police station, where the police believe they have fished the body of his daughter from the river. The corpse has similar facial injuries, you see-- where the face should be, there is just an open wound. The good doctor gives confirmation that it is his daughter, Christiane.
At the funeral, he is accompanied by Alida Valli.
Back at his villa, we meet his daughter, who is heartbroken about her lack of face, and who has found her own funeral announcement. The good doctor explains that because the other girl died during the face transplant, he just identified the body as his daughter so no one would think she was alive. Since she isn't wearing her mask-- we only ever see the back of her head during this sequence-- he reminds her that she needs to get into the habit of wearing the mask until he can fix her face. She mentions that they've removed all the mirrors, but she can still see her face in the window glass, or varnished wood, or a knife blade.
All of which brings us to minute 24 of a 90-minute movie. This film takes its time, man.
That said, at this point it all ratchets up a notch. The plot remains simple. Doctor consumed with guilt for causing his daughter's disfigurement takes extreme measures (including kidnapping and murder) in an attempt to fix her face. Daughter, deeply depressed and teetering on the brink, deals with the reality of her mad-doctor father's misdeeds, and attempts to balance them against her hypothetical happiness at having a functional face again. Where this movie really shines is in the beautiful pacing, performances, sets, and direction.
Edith Scob's performance in this movie is incredible. She has to do a massive amount of emoting with just her body movements and her eyes, and she pulls it off beautifully.
That mask, by the way? John Carpenter said that it was a source of inspiration for Michael Myers' featureless Shat-mask in Halloween.
At one point Christiane, having just witnessed her father and Alida Valli drug a girl and strap her to a hospital table, walks through the surgical room to a room full of caged animals, which her father undoubtedly (and thankfully off-camera) uses for his gruesome experiments in heterografting. The dogs don't pity her, and they aren't afraid of her because of the mask. They're just thankful for the attention, and the care.
Walking back through the surgical room, she finds a mirror, removes her mask, and inspects herself. Then she walks over to the drugged girl on the table and sees her perfect face.
One of the fascinating aspects of this movie is that there isn't really a villain-- or at least, there isn't really evil. The Doctor's motivations are clear and sympathetic. He's caused a horrible tragedy, and will go to great lengths to correct it, but he is not evil, just driven a little insane by the folly of his shortcomings. His assistant Louise, played by Valli, is so grateful to the doctor for fixing her face that she's willing to follow him to the ends of the earth to accomplish what she sees as a great goal. Christiane herself is an innocent, a John Merrick-style character, pitiable, heartbreaking. She is implicit in her father's misdeeds, certainly, by allowing him to declare her dead, and going along with his kidnapping-and-nonconsenting-surgery plots, but she's just a teenage girl, faltering in an uncertain world.
Which brings us to the film's end. After standing by as her father (before the movie begins) kidnapping and murdering a girl in an attempt to graft her face onto his daughter; kidnapping another girl, transplanting her face away, and then watching as she commits suicide; and finally, kidnapping a third girl, Christiane decides that she can no longer share complicity in what's going on. When her father is called away by the police, who have been investigating, Christiane is left alone in the surgical room with the latest transplant donor. She takes decisive action. I don't want to get too spoiler-y. But one of the things she does is release all of the caged animals her father experimented on.
Here is a huge gif. This thing is bigger than the rest of the gifs combined but I love this damn scene so much.
This movie is like Hitchcock meets Cocteau. I can't tell you how much I like the eerie, slow, sad French horror.
As a side note, if you know me fairly well, you also know that I'm a huge poster collector nerd. So after I watched it, I ran out and found the original 1960 French one-sheet. It arrived last week, and here it is, in all its glory.
Well, that's that. I watched 31 horror movies in the month of November. It was deeply gratifying. Here's the full list, along with links to the various blogs wherein I talked about the particular movies. I didn't start blogging until I'd already watched ten of them, so those early ones get short-shrift single-sentence mentions in the larger review of Hour of the Wolf. Movies with an asterisk are ones that I'd seen before.
I hope you'll join me again next year. I've already picked up a few good candidates, if I can manage to not watch them between now and then.
1. Leviathan (1989)
2. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
3. Trollhunter (2010)*
4. Dracula (1931)*
5. Dracula's Daughter (1936)
6. Headhunters (2010)
7. Soultangler (1987)
8. Slime City (1988)
9. Hour of the Wolf (1968)
10. Landscape Suicide (1986)
11. Sweet Home (1989)
12. Troll 2 (1990)
13. Dead Ringers (1988)*
14. Deranged (1974)
15. Killer Party (1986)
16. Deliver Us From Evil (2014)
17. Schalken the Painter (1979)
18. WolfCop (2014)
19. Road Games (1981)
20. Visiting Hours (1982)
21. Witchboard (1986)
22. Tales From the Crypt (1972)
23. Grave Encounters (2011)
24. Tourist Trap (1979)
25. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
26. Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (1972)
27. Phase IV (1974)
28. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)*
29. Housebound (2014)
30. The Deadly Spawn (1983)
31. Alone in the Dark (1982)
Wow. I did it. 31 horror movies in the month of October. And there's still three days to go! I'M BREAKIN' RECORDS OVER HERE
This is an interesting flick. I'd had it recommended to me before, but never really looked into it. It just seemed to me-- from, granted, what was a cursory glance-- to be your standard early-1980s slasher flick. The poster was just a bloody axe dangling from a dude's hand, so there wasn't a whole lot to recommend it.
This time, it hovered into my field of interest, and when it was recommended to me, the cast was played up-- and whoa, what a cast. Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, plus a bevy of supporting character actors. Landau and Palance are crazy people in an asylum run (very loosely) by Donald Pleasence, and when one of the doctors retires and is replaced, the most dangerous inmates decide that the new doctor must have killed the old one. So they make it their mission to hunt him down and kill him.
And man, Jack Palance chews the scenery beautifully in this movie.
Although, to be fair, everyone chews the scenery beautifully in this movie.
The movie is helped along by a great supporting cast-- the new doctor (played by the same guy who was "Howlin' Mad" Murdock in The A-Team has a family, and they're all written and played well, generating empathy and concern in a genuine way, rather than feeling totally manufactured. You can tell the writer and director genuinely liked these characters, rather than just cramming a bunch of people together and hoping we'd root for them out of some generic protagonist cameraderie.
Don't get me wrong, though, there are plenty of rando murders. At one point, Jack Palance is driving the van full of lunatics down a suburban street, and they come upon a postman riding his bike. "I want his hat," says Landau. Palance starts driving faster and faster to chase the guy down, and the postman makes the terrible mistake of calling Palance an asshole. So naturally, this requires retribution.
There are also a fair amount of tropes and standard horror-movie fare. There's a bunch of violent nuts escapaed from an asylum, a conveniently-timed power outage, one of the psychos wears a hockey mask (although this came out the same year as Friday the 13th Part III, the first time Jason Voorhees wore a hockey mask-- I'm not sure which came first), there's your standard boobtastic "college kids fool around until they get murdered" scene, corpses falling out of a closet that our heroes are trying to hide in, a good cop who meets a bad end, a surprise twist, et cetera.
They're all played pretty straight, but in context they seem-- well-- not exactly tongue-in-cheek, but definitely a little meta and self-aware, although not in a humorous or parodic way. They're just nods to the genre, and they're all done really well and serve to further the plot or allow for the continuation of the larger story.
But really, most of the character interactions are stellar, especially when it's the principals. There's a confrontation between Donald Pleasence's well-intentioned but naive doctor and Martin Landau's murderous ex-preacher that's worth the price of admission just by itself.
The pacing, writing, casting, and acting set this apart from most of the 80s slashers out there. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I love movies like this.
This is steaming hot trash from the early 80s, done on a shoestring budget. It's super-goofy and fun, and it looks like it was just as fun to make it as it is to watch. On top of that, the creature effects are actually really fantastic, and the character development is pretty well done.
The gore is sincerely insane. This is a movie that feels like a goofy teenager chiller-thriller, but then periodically something insanely messed up happens. The plot is fairly straightforward: a meteor crashes, some campers go to investigate, outer-space monsters murder them.
The outer-space monsters wander their way into a basement, where they begin to wreak havoc on the inhabitants of the house in amazingly graphic and shocking ways.
Oh yeah. This thing is going to have nothing but animated gifs. You can blame Ed Ringtone for this. Because I am a man who has learned a new technology, I have determined that I must use this new technology for everything. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a skull, right?
Did I mention that, in addition to all the horrendous gore, this movie has weird, gratuitous boobs?
Here's the woman from the earlier gif, shown here after getting out of bed. She is still alive at this point.
That shot goes on for thirty seconds. She gets out of bed, stretches, looks at her hair in the mirror, adjusts it a little bit, turns, walks to the window, looks at the window, and is mildly disappointed that it is raining-- which is the portion that I have chosen to show you here. Then she puts on her robe.
That is some straight-up dedication to gratuitous boobs covered in sheer material.
Anyway, she goes to look for her husband in the basement and gets murdered, as seen earlier.
Meanwhile, there are about eight other families in the house. This house is huge. One of the families has a little kid who's super into movie monsters and wears a red Dracula cape around. A different family in the house has a psychiatrist father, and there is a long sequence where he tries to psychoanalyze the kid who loves monsters. He asks him if he believes that monsters are real, or that he would ever see a monster, and the kid responds that no, of course not, monsters aren't real. Because duh.
Eventually, he shuts up, and the kid wanders down into the basement, and finds the horrible monster, all of its wee horrible spawn, and the corpses of the people who have already gone to the great watery basement in the sky. Here is that superb, glorious reaction shot.
But what's this? Some of the other, older kids have found one of the weird spawn-babies in the creek. They discuss its phylum and genus, along with a historical tangent about the re-discovery of the coelacanth, a weird ancient fish thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1938.
Rather than choosing to believe that it is a coelacanth, one of the fellows posits that it is a baby freshwater eel.
One of them decides to dissect it, and asks the one who lives there if his mother has a cookie sheet or something.
Then they cut back to the kid in the basement, watching the weird alien babies eat the head of his friend's mother for an absurd amount of time:
So he's been down there just watching ridiculous carnage take place. At this point he's been down there for maybe an hour of movie timeline-time. Just, you know, chillin' out with the corpses of people he knows, plus a huge monster and a whole passel of tiny monsters.
You know, like you or I would do.
Eventually he wanders back upstairs.
Thankfully, we're spared a long sequence where the kid tries to convince people that there are monsters in the basement. We are spared this tired indignity of a trope because the monsters are killing everybody upstairs. A few of the college kids are left, for a little while, at least, until one of them is beheaded by the monster and thrown out a window, in a shot that is basically the entire reason that I love movies like this:
That sequence has three cuts and they exist for no real reason.
I wholeheartedly recommend this totally ridiculous gorefest of a movie.
I'm almost at 31. I didn't think I'd actually do that.
I also published a blog post every day last week. I honestly think it's been probably a decade since I did that. Sheesh.
I guess I love horror movies that goddamn much.
Let's get into it.
This is the only movie that Saul Bass directed. If you don't know Saul Bass, you should-- he designed some of the greatest title sequences in the history of film, stuff like North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, The Man With the Golden Arm, Bunny Lake Is Missing, Anatomy of a Murder, and many more. He was also a preeminent influence on design in the latter half of the twentieth century altogether, designing some of the most brilliant, simple, and memorable movie posters ever created. Stuff like Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Shining, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and more too numerous to list here.
The guy is a legend. And the opening sequence of this movie goes a long way towards illustrating that. It starts off with a beautiful minimalist scene of the earth circling a sun, along with a voiceover describing something going strangely with "magnetic fields" and radiation. Then there are another few minutes of close-up photography of ants, scurrying around, chatting with their googly antennae, et cetera, while the voiceover explains that they've been inexplicably changed by the magnetic field / radiation thing.
The whole thing is really pretty.
Unfortunately, it's a bit downhill from there. The brilliant ants advance their plans to take over. Scientists try to stop them. It is all incredibly boring.
That said, there are some fantastic sequences wordlessly showing the ants in close-up figuring things out. These bits are punctuated by swooping, doom-drone synths and are gorgeous and fascinating to watch.
Also, the set pieces and art direction are straight-up beautiful and on point. He does the sort of minimalist, cold sci-fi set stuff that Kubrick did, and which went on to influence basically everything in the 70s.
I mean seriously, this stuff is gorgeous.
That said, all of the shots with people exchanging dialogue are stultifyingly dull. The plot advances, but it does so with no real sense of urgency or peril. In that, it approximates what I imagine it would be like if we were watching actual scientists doing actual science in the face of impending doom, but it certainly doesn't make for good cinema.
Thankfully, there are all those gorgeous people-less art sets, and all those eerie, creepy close-ups of the insects fucking with their shit. This movie is worth watching for the flashes of visual beauty, but I can't heartily recommend it overall, because it's so uneven.
So last month I had the good luck and enjoyment of attending MondoCon, a convention based around pop-culture ephemera, specifically screenprinted movie posters, limited-edition vinyl versions of horror movie soundtracks, and various and sundry other things. It was absolutely fantastic-- I met so many incredible artists, many of whom I'd been a huge fan of for years. I also picked up a ridiculous amount of vinyl.
One of the truly awesome things MondoCon did was set up movie showings. I saw Ghost in the Shell on the big screen, and picked up a gorgeous poster for it. They also showed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a live score performed in the theater by the musicians, Anton Maoif and Umberto, who played as "The Hook and Pull Gang."
Now, I love TCM. A lot. I've seen it many many times, and for my money, it's one of the best horror movies of all time. It's not without its problems, but by and large it does an incredible job juggling tone, and provides a sense of eerie dread and discomfort the whole way through. With the new score, it was absolutely incredible-- just these deep synth tones, low notes hammering endlessly and never letting up. It raised my arm hairs for nearly the whole time and I forgot I was in the theater for a little while. It was incredible. After the show, attendees were given copies of the score on vinyl, I got those fellows to sign it, and it holds a place of honor in my collection.
Last weekend I was out of town, and in the hotel, we happened upon TCM being shown on television. I had no choice but to watch it.
The new score is amazing and outstanding, but even without it, this movie was incredible to watch. Just as fresh and terrifying as when I first watched it in Junior High with my friends, clutching the sides of the armchair and gritting my teeth.
Anyway. Yeah. So good.
This came as a recommendation from a dude who was making fun of my earlier choices. Man, that dude is a fool about my choices thus far (except Grave Encounters. Man, what a horrible piece of shit). Therefore, I really wanted to watch this movie and have it be terrible so that I could then shove that back in his face.
But this movie was great. I've always been a fan of New Zealand comedic horror flicks-- Dead Alive, Black Sheep, um, other early Peter Jackson movies-- and this flick stays right in that wheelhouse. It is hilarious. It is also creepy as shit.
There are even some moments where it is both at the same time.
Oh yeah. Mike said I needed to learn how to make animated gifs. So I'm trying that now.
Anyway, the plot is thus: a young lady, who is also a meth addict, gets busted robbing an ATM and is sentenced to house arrest. Eight months trapped in her house with her doting mother, her stepfather, and what may or may not be a ghost, or maybe a serial killer, or maybe just a straight-up insane person, or maybe it's all in her head. There are a few twists and turns, which actually work really well throughout.
What really sells it, though, is the acting. The lead, Morgana O'Reilly, really plays this part to the hilt. She plays the furious meth-addict recovering (and just seething with rage) in her mother's house, being unable to go anywhere, and feeling persecuted and victimized. She does this with subtlety, grace, and fucking impeccable comic timing.
Rima Te Wiata plays her mother, and is pitch-perfect as the weird, well-meaning but slightly out-of-touch (and a little racist) mother, a perfect foil for O'Reilly's eye-rolling and silent lip-whitening. The supporting cast is made up of various misfits, weirdos, well-meaning but silly psychiatrists, and doubting cops, all shining through in their character-actor glory.
Eight out of eight kiwis. Belongs on any shelf next to Dead Alive and Black Sheep.